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Mata takes center stage in Manchester United 1-1 Arsenal
For all of Manchester United’s outrageous summer spending, their most deadly midfield spark this season has come from a rather unlikely source. Jose Mourinho’s arrival at Old Trafford has signaled the unexpected rejuvenation of Juan Mata, and the Spanish midfielder took center stage in United’s draw with Arsenal on Saturday evening. Despite an unfortunately short and unpleasant tenure under Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, player and manager have resolved their past grievances in order to send United charging back up the Premier League table.
Although Mata couldn’t even win a place in Mourinho’s title-winning Chelsea squad two years ago, the Portuguese manager gave the Spaniard license to roam in the United midfield against the Gunners, a move which paid rich dividends as Mata struck the back of the net in the second half. In the absence of a sidelined Wayne Rooney and suspended Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mata found himself at the heart of United’s attacking prowess having been moved from the wing into his preferred central role.
Their stunning creativity in the middle of the park was belied by wasteful finishing on the night, allowing Olivier Giroud’s to nip a late equalizer for Arsenal, but these are promising signs that United’s midfield can start functioning in high gear with Mata at the fore.
Considering his experience, medal count and world-class skills, Mata’s doubters and critics are perhaps more widespread than is warranted. Not many had expected him to stick around when Mourinho took the helm last summer, yet he has performed remarkably well so far, with three goals and an assist in ten league appearances. United have been patchy and inconsistent so far this season, but Mourinho’s men are undefeated in Mata’s eight league starts so far this season. Without the twenty-eight-year-old in the starting-lineup they’ve lost three times and drawn once, scoring only two goals and allowing nine.
There were ample opportunities to witness Mata’s breathtaking skill tonight, with the World Cup winner nearly stroking home an early lead with a beautiful free-kick in the fourth minute. Mata curled inches wide from twenty yards out but the warning signs were there.
A large part of his renewed success appears to be his substantial effort to contribute on the defense, perhaps in recognition of what may be required to fit into Mourinho’s system. He has made more tackles per game than in any other season in his career, per WhoScored data, and it was his pressing that helped create another chance for United in the fortieth minute. Mata forced a turnover from Arsenal in their own third that allowed Martial to whip a dangerous effort towards the top corner from the left side of the box, which Cech tipped over onto the roof of the net.
Mata finally stroked home the opener in the sixty-eighth minute, coolly tucking home Ander Herrera’s cut-back from fifteen yards and leaping the barrier to jump into the crowd.
Yet United were unable to hang onto the win, paying for a momentary lack of focus as Giroud headed home in the eighty-eighth minute. It was Arsenal’s only shot on target the entire game, but worth a valuable point.
Somewhat fittingly, though, Mata had departed to a standing ovation ten minutes earlier and his sparkling performance remained unblemished.
Homepage photo credit: Ronnie Macdonald [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons